This ten-minute debate on BBC Woman’s Hour between Laura Bates and Edwina Currie touched on so many ideas not often expressed but which infuse this whole area of discussion. If you’ve missed this week’s storm, it is about the journalist Isabel Hardman reporting an MP who approached her in the House of Commons saying ‘I want to talk to the totty.’
Laura Bates founded the Everyday Sexism project. Edwina Currie is a former Tory politician. Their conversation reveals so many underlying assumptions and strategies wheeled out by sexism apologists they deserve unpacking here.
Strategy 1: move the debate away from men and onto women’s behaviour
In her first minute of the interview, Laura Bates pointed out that ‘sexist men are laughing’ because instead of centering outrage on their behaviour, the whole media junket camps out at the door of women. Preferably two women who disagree with each other, because …
Strategy 2: watching girls fight implies a default male gaze
Laura Bates captured this aspect when she said this issue didn’t catch hold of national attention until the Daily Mail presented it as a disagreement between two women. The cat fight, with its sexual connotations, is the darling of gutter press like the Mail. It is like the print version of their Sidebar of Shame. We must assume they fight to win something. That ‘something’ sounds suspiciously like male approval.
Strategy 3: put the blame on the past
Edwina Currie described the incident as ‘an elderly MP paying a compliment’, implying social interactions were different when he had learned how to speak to women. Absolutely right. After the Second World War (Edwina was born in 1946) women were about to be packed back into domesticity when the men came back to reclaim jobs women had been doing perfectly capably during the war. It was a different time. Let’s not recreate it now.
Strategy 4: ignore the power dynamic
Around 3 mins 30 seconds, Laura tries for the first time to link sexism with unequal power in the workplace, rebutted by Edwina muttering ‘that’s nonsense’ twice. It simply doesn’t occur to Edwina (and by ‘Edwina’ I mean ‘people who wheel out her arguments’) that anyone might be nervous about reporting behaviour that makes them uncomfortable if it was done by someone senior who can sack them or block a promotion.
Strategy 5: refuse to accept borders between a woman’s professional and personal life
Edwina’s stance on this is old-fashioned. I get that. But she said it today, so she’s not going to get away with it. Her point is that some people get romantically involved at work (yes, Edwina, we know you know that, yet pointing it out reinforces the woman-on-woman shaming and conflict outlined in Strategy 2 – do you see how difficult this is?). She enjoys sexual attention, and refuses to understand anyone who doesn’t, thinking they might be missing out on ‘a pass’.
Strategy 6: reduce women’s worth to their appearance
Her advice to the much younger Laura was ‘make the most of it, because the day will come when you’re not a good-looking girl any more’. At this point my mouth was hanging open at the radio. I don’t need to unpack that any more for you, do I? Oh, wait, she also talked about ‘young women who come in and make the place look better.’ There. That’s enough rope now.
Strategy 7: tell women their discomfort is a joke
We’ve all heard our version of David Cameron’s ‘calm down dear.’ Edwina endorses this by recommending dealing with sexism with ‘a little bit of good humour’. Bloody humourless feminists, eh? Having a pay gap that’s as big as Eric Pickles’ arse because of their inability to smile.
Strategy 8: assume all women need and welcome patronising advice
Edwina finishes with a classic explanation that Laura has been doing things wrong all this time: ‘Laura, Laura, please, take my advice – concentrate on the really serious stuff.’ She was slick to elide into …
Strategy 9: differentiate between grades of ‘bad’ and imply they are mutually exclusive
Edwina said she would be delighted if someone called her totty, and that the journalist at the centre of this row should concentrate on more important things. Like whipping up a salmonella scare, perhaps.
Strategy 10: put up with it
Edwina’s last advice was to ‘make yourself a better person than the person whose remark you don’t like’. In other words: shut up. Um, no.
So there you are: a ten point plan to reinforce patriarchy. Ten points that have been internalised by a woman so completely they are seen as unassailable logic. I’m off to read some more Jacky Fleming.